Wanted: More Choices for Consumers with Disabilities

Assistive technology is big business, which can only benefit people with disabilities (PwDs) – one of the largest market segments in the world. Yet, for all the research and investment into developing better assistive technology products, many PwDs (who I also prefer to call “consumers with disabilities”) do not feel the products fully satisfy the need/want that is generated by their disability. In other words, there are not enough choices for PwDs that fully meet their disability-generated needs. One way to resolve this is to invest even more money and time into researching and developing better products that meet these needs. But a more practical solution could lie in how businesses incorporate the PwDs’ perceptions and understanding of the assistive technology product into their research, development, and marketing. In other words, a more accurate understanding of the PwDs’ expectations for assistive technology products can give businesses insights into what PwDs really want in terms of full accessibility that satisfies and excites them. Surprisingly, there is not enough academic research into behavioral and psychological attitudes among PwDs that purchase and use assistive technology products — the kind of research that businesses could benefit from.

In marketing lingo, a “pain point” is a problem experienced by a consumer that keeps him or her from satisfying or achieving a need or want. Examples of pain points:

  • We are cold.
  • We are hungry.
  • We are bored.
  • We want to pass an exam and get an A.

To address these pain points, customers need or want something to “relieve the pain.” So, to avoid the cold, we buy jackets, blankets, even hot coffee. To relieve our hunger, we buy food. To alleviate our boredom, we do something interesting, fun, and exciting, like buying tickets to a baseball game. As for passing an exam and getting an A — some even buy tutoring services to improve the chances of passing, while others just spend time studying. 

Businesses address these pain points by introducing new products or services, improving their current offerings, or targeting new markets with their current offerings. The level of “pain” in the pain point varies by consumer — it can be something that’s easily ignored, or something that is truly bothersome.

For a consumer with a disability, he or she has a “pain point” that consumers without disabilities do not have: a need or want that is not satisfied because of the disability itself. The pain point can be significant or trivial, depending on whether the consumer wants to “fix” his/her disability, merely mitigate it, or accept and keep the disability. The pain point can be something as mundane as being nearsighted (to take a VERY loose definition of disability) and not being able to see across the room, or as complex as having major spinal cord injuries that preclude the ability to live independently.

To take the example of the nearsighted woman, for the sake of simplicity, she needs to be able to see across the room where the television is located. What products address the pain point? The answer is fairly straightforward: a pair of glasses, a pair of contact lenses, or laser surgery.

Before the 13th century, eyeglasses as we know it today were nonexistent — hence the perceived “pain point” for nearsighted people then was probably more significant and bothersome than it is today because of the limited number of products that address nearsightedness. They may not have been able to integrate themselves into society on the same level as we could today. So while the technology to make eyeglasses in the 13th century did exist, the investment and commitment required to produce these eyeglasses would have been prohibitive, limiting its use to people with wealth or access to resources. In the 18th century, mass production and further inventions in glassmaking made eyeglasses cheaper, better designed, and more accessible to the wider population. So a self-made entrepreneur in the year 1200 who identified a large market of nearsighted people would have been challenged to find ready-made supplies.

Contact lenses, in the sweep of history, is a fairly recent invention — addressing various pain points such as dirty eyeglasses and perceived self-image. Laser surgery takes pain points a step further by removing yet another pain point: the inconvenience of putting on eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Businesses have responded to the varied needs of consumers with disabilities by developing products that address their specific disabilities. For most people without disabilities — from the outside looking in — the existence of these products might appear to have satisfied most PwDs’ needs. Yet, the reality is, for most disability-related products, the pain point is still there, just in a different way. (One can easily forget that this is true of most products in general anyway. In a perfect world there would be no pain points. In reality, this is far from being true.)

What do pain points have to do with developing the best possible assistive technology products? For most businesses, consumers with disabilities are perceived as always “needing help.” (Which is a big turn-off for many PwDs.) In reality, various PwDs have different levels of “pain” in their “pain points” — some may find the problem bothersome, while others do not think much of the problem and are not motivated to find out the solution. Businesses need to discover PwD’s attitudes and perceptions toward specific assistive technology products through market research (surveying, observation, and other tools like focus groups) and determine if the pain point is significant and bothersome enough among enough PwDs to suggest a product opportunity that addresses that pain point. And to design products that eliminate that “pain point” as much as possible — the definition of a product that satisfies a PwD’s needs and wants. With better-designed and more functionally relevant assistive technology products, both businesses and PwDs can stand to benefit equally — through better profitability for businesses, and more quality options for PwDs to choose from that better satisfy their disability-generated needs.

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